The learning curve

25th August 2009, by Chris Gill

(c) Family Ski Company

(c) Family Ski Company

First published in WTSS 2004

It’s some years now since the Gill family’s annual ski holidays ceased to provide any really useful material for my annual bulletins from the child-rearing front. Son Alex skis with Dad, or anyone else he can find who might make his days on skis more interesting by being less obsessed by safety. Daughter Laura ‘skis’ with Mum, which is family-speak for getting up late, lunching early and taking an unnatural interest in shopping.

But I do still take an interest in how ski resorts and ski companies deal with families. Well, someone involved in Where to Ski and Snowboard has to.

We know a large proportion of our readers travel in family groups, and that there are lots of decisions to be made in the course of arranging a family trip. So some guidance follows on lessons learned.

Lesson 0: you have to learn your own lessons
Your children and mine are individuals, and what has worked for mine may not work for yours. So what follows may or may not be of help to you in figuring out how to go skiing as a family.

Lesson 1: leaving them behind doesn’t work
When Alex was a year old, Val and I went for a week in Norway, leaving him at home with his nanny. OK, Norway wasn’t the ideal place, considering my preference for proper lunches and proper wine with dinner, but, even allowing for my increasingly disgruntled frame of mind, the trip wasn’t a success. By day four, we were missing the boy dreadfully, and counting down the hours to the flight back to Newcastle.

Lesson 2: it pays to develop hard hearts

I am full of admiration for people who from an early age thrust their children into various socially challenging environments in which the resourceful brats prosper to everyone’s very evident satisfaction - and, crucially, keep it up until the kids are grown up. We managed to do it when our kids were tiny, and their screams of protest at being left in the care of an unfamiliar someone didn’t require a reasoned reply. We somehow lost the plot, though, once the kids learned how to manipulate our emotions fully.

We seem to have conceded long ago that (a) holidays are meant to be holidays for the kids as well as for the parents, and that sending them to ski school is inconsistent with having a holiday from school; (b) we don’t see enough of the kids in the normal course of life and should take the opportunity that holidays present to spend more time with them. Curiously, this second argument is deployed only when the threat of ski school is present. On summer holidays, with no such threat, we are not required to spend any time at all with the kids. Strange.

Lesson 3: it’s worth plugging into UK tour operators

If your kids, like mine, are used to the mollycoddling that passes for child-rearing in Britain, it’s enormously reassuring to know that if you travel with a suitably equipped tour operator the kids’ mollies can be coddled endlessly by nannies who share our values.These days there are countless companies providing services of this kind, including the major mainstream operators. But there are specialists, and the advertising in the book is as good a guide as you will find to their identities.

Lesson 4: there is no right age to start

Some people will tell you to start your kids on skis as soon as possible. My advice is to let the kids decide for themselves when to start. As it happens, both of our kids made a start, with different results, at age four. Following his distressing experience at the hands of the ESF (see Lesson 5), son Alex took a year off, basically got the hang of it under my guidance at age six, and then really learned how to do it in America at age seven (see Lesson 6). Laura also started at age four, but purely by coincidence: she was checked into the nursery in Killington, discovered they had no arrangements for playing out in the snow and decided skiing was a more attractive option than sitting indoors all day.

Lesson 5: the ESF is a disgrace, to be avoided

I know that there are conscientious and competent instructors working in the Ecole du Ski Français, and that there are people whose children have consistently had enjoyable and profitable lessons with the school. I know that the grim experience of my son Alex, aged four, at the hands of a branch of the ESF tells us very little. I know that there simply are cultural differences between the French and the British in the child-rearing area which complicate the business of handing over our kids to their care. I acknowledge that I have had successful lessons in the ESF myself, occasionally. But I also know that every year the ESF, uniquely, generates reports from readers that tell of scandalous disregard for the well-being and even the safety of the kids in its charge. I’m not suggesting a boycott, but I am suggesting that you improve the chances of successful lessons for your kids if you choose alternative schools where they exist.

Lesson 6: those who can afford it should consider America

Childcare and child tuition in the US is marvellous - the people doing it are skilled, caring, jolly and English-speaking. I can still picture the lift attendant in Killington who first got Laura to ride a draglift by running up the slope beside her, holding her upright and shouting encouragement. What more could you ask? Well, you could ask for a low child-to-pro ratio, and in the States you get one. The downside is that the cost is huge - something like three or four times the cost of the equivalent classes in Austria, for example. Is it worth it? If you plan to use the facilities all day, every day for a week, probably not, for most people. If on the other hand you are thinking of spending part of your week looking after the kids yourself and part of it child-free, paying over the odds for a better chance of a successful outcome is quite an appealing option.

Lesson 7: the right resort can help a lot

It’s obvious, isn’t it? If your children are mobile, and likely to want to leave the confines of your accommodation, you want them to step out into a traffic-free environment and to find gentle slopes for sledging and snowballing only yards away. If they are of skiing age, you want them to be able to ski to and from the door, so that you don’t have to choose between carrying their kit to the lift and a major disciplinary hearing every morning in order to get them to do it for themselves.

These ideal places exist, and with dedicated study of the hundreds of pages that follow can be identified. But don’t forget it’s your holiday, too. See next lesson.

Lesson 8: The wrong resort can work quite well

The main reason you are going skiing - well, the main reason I am going skiing, at least - is to have enjoyable days out on the mountain. I want extensive slopes, some challenges, good snow, decent restaurants, grand views.

Sometimes, the search for this combination has led to resorts that might not be top of the list for a family holiday - Val d’Isère and Chamonix, for example. These holidays have worked out OK largely because we have travelled with tour operators - Mark Warner and Esprit, in these two cases - who relieved us of our parental responsibilities to such a degree that the drawbacks of the resort were painlessly overcome, ferrying the kids to ski school for example. Back to lesson 3, then.

Lesson 9: Don’t expect appreciation

I started skiing in my twenties, and have an abiding sense of what a privilege it is to be high in the mountains in February, when I could be in a grey, damp Britain. My kids, it seems, would just as soon be at home playing computer games. Of course, your kids are likely to be different. See Lesson 0.

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